Malavika Reddy and Taylor Lowe: The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng


The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng: A Tale of Unspeakability and Thai Politics
written and designed by Malavika Reddy and Taylor Lowe

Wearing a cotton candy colored coat, Khun Tongdaeng walks in front of wheelchair bound King Bhumipol Adulyadej. The schedule for the day, June 21, 2011, calls for His Majesty to preside over a procession of Navy motorboats on the Chao Praya River in Bangkok. Only just preceded by Khun Tongdaeng, the King exits the hospital where he has long been residing. A cadre of uniformed officials, doctors, nurses and police follow, matching the solemn pace of the wheelchair. Hospital staff and police officers line the corridors of the hospital, on their knees, poised to prostrate themselves as His Majesty’s attendant rolls the wheelchair past them. Outside the hospital a crowd of well-wishers do the same. Open discussion about the reasons for the King’s extended stay in hospital is rare and public speculation is considered inappropriate. Many Thais await public appearances like this one in part to assess His Majesty’s health. On this day, the King in his wheelchair appears frail and weak. Khun Tongdaeng’s face also shows significant aging, but her presence in the events nevertheless contradicts rumors of her illness and death (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyiJJYRavT4, June 21, 2011).

Khun Tongdaeng is a dog, but as her participation in His Majesty’s public events might suggest, she is also much more. Significant of respect and status, “Khun” is an honorific added to the beginning of a person’s name. Only in very rare instances is Khun used for animals; its use in the names of a handful of dogs in the royal household is a source of confusion and chagrin among some Thais. Tongdaeng was a stray before her adoption by the King. She was named Tongdaeng or copper because of her reddish coat. In her 12 years, Khun Tongdaeng has been caught up in the politics of her day. She has been the subject of countless profiles, two books and a documentary. Her genealogy has been extensively chronicled. Her public appearances are fondly received. Photographs of her, alone and with His Majesty, have appeared in newspapers, on clothing and on stamps. Her likeness has been branded and copyrighted and she has been mobilized as a symbol of the King and of the country.


fig. 1: This diagram charts the kinship bonds that Tongdaeng is thought to have, ties that are repeatedly invoked in media coverage of the dog and in The Story of Tongdaeng.

Bruno Latour argues that, “…politics is not made with politics, but with something else” (1998, 56 original emphasis). The something else of politics is literally a type of thing: the connections, both novel and stale, that are made among people, objects and ideas that are not in themselves political. It is not politics that make associations, agendas and alliances among people and things. It is the exact opposite. Associations, agendas and alliances among people and things make politics. Khun Tongdaeng’s mobilization brought together the royal institution and commerce, copyright law and royal subjects, the monarchy and branding, animal-lovers and ‘modern’ forms of pet-ownership. The king’s favorite dog is not herself political. Yet, she gets to the heart of much that comprised Thai politics in the 2000s.

The exhibition of love and care between His Majesty and his dog also showed a different side of the king, one that offered a novel riposte to the charisma of Thaksin Shinawatra, the polarizing and, at the time, ascendant Prime Minister. Perhaps no other figure looms as large in Thailand in the past decade as does Thaksin. Prime Minister from 2001 until he was removed from office by a coup d’etat in 2006, Thaksin is often characterized as a populist leader. This is in part because he implemented a trifecta of policies – an agrarian debt relief program, a universal health care scheme, and a community microfinance program – that addressed Thailand’s rural poor majority. More than his policies, however, Thaksin’s populism was a matter of style, as Phongphaichit and Baker have amply demonstrated (2008). Thaksin dressed down. He took meetings with voters in the provinces, bringing his cabinet with him. He shared stories about intimate aspects of his family life. His weekly radio broadcasts became chronicles of his day-to-day experiences. He spoke informally and could codeswitch to Northern Thai dialect. Grand and inclusive gestures of giving were a particularly important aspect of Thaksin’s charisma. Whether offering to personally purchase laptops for any student who did not already own one or inviting all of Bangkok’s taxi drivers to lunch with him at his home, Thaksin’s offers included and equated all members of whatever category they identified as recipients (all taxi drivers, every student, each citizen). Thaksin emphasized giving as an interpersonal act, not between the Thai bureaucracy and its dependents, but between himself and a set of equivalents. That Thaksin was himself mixed up in entrenched hierarchies and scandal does not diminish the fact that the genius of his politics, and one source of its threat to elites in Thailand, was his ability to make thinkable the idea that all Thais are equal (Hewison 2004; Morris 2004; Phongphaichit and Baker 2008).

This was a threat because the premise of equality is not a given in Thai society. Quotidian social relationships are almost always marked linguistically by an acknowledgement of status difference, inequalities that are thought to reflect age, gender, wealth, political position or karma. It is also commonplace to observe the role of a pu yai (a person who can summon his/her greater store of social capital to work on your behalf in exchange for your loyalty and help) in making things happen. Instead of an ideology of equality, there exists, for the most part, the idea of a society of unequals.

Yet, differences in status or position also connote obligations of care and protection, gratitude and fealty. No relationship in Thai society better idealizes this type of inequality than does the presumed bond between the King and his subjects. His Majesty is often called father and his leadership is paternalistic. Most of the King’s public statements take the form of advice or lessons, and the pomp of his public performances often serve to establish his position as separate from, above and perhaps made of more sacred stuff than are his subjects. An elaborate protocol exists to enact this position. Those that appear before him must approach on their knees. Reverence is demonstrated by deep prostration. The same logic that locates His Majesty above everyone else constructs the many social development schemes that he has advanced as expressions of a benevolent hierarchy, one in which those at the bottom are thankful to receive royal patronage and solicitude.

It is this vision of leadership that Thaksin’s populist rhetoric challenged, precisely by creating the impression that he, one of the most powerful men in the country, was one of the people, one in a body politic of equals. A calculated fiction, as has been widely discussed, and a self-serving one that helped to advance business interests in Thailand, it nonetheless acquired momentum in Thai politics in the 2000s.


fig. 2

Public debate over the role of the monarchy in Thai society is fraught with legal and other taboos. The Criminal Code of Thailand bans threats and defamatory statements against the King, the Queen, the Heir and the Regent. Convictions carry up to 15 years of jail time. Accusations of defamation and criminal prosecutions are used to smear political opponents, control political discourse and manage dissent. What may be more entrenched, however, is that other modes of enforced silence, aside from the law, also delimit mainstream discussion about the royal institution. These include conventions about what types of people can get away with being critical, who is authorized to speak where, and what “appropriate” speech entails. Critique is also seen to clash with the value of gratitude for father and King. Political discourse is thereby constituted around an inability to directly address the workings and legitimacy of the monarchy, an unspeakability that ironically constrains, howsoever unequally, both dissenters as well as their king.

Enter Khun Tongdaeng. Her mobilization through a variety of media is ripe with the unsayable. The Tongdaeng images and paraphernalia that flooded Bangkok in the early part of the decade “spoke” to, but also around the anxieties of the monarchy in a way that no amount of paternal speechifying could ever do. At the same time, the manifestation of Tongdaeng in a variety of objects makes connections between His Majesty and significant political economic developments of the day, including copyright regimes, branding, and the ongoing project to make Thais more ‘modern.’ Tongdaeng became a device that was seen to impart the King’s luster to these bureaucratic and business endeavors, ostensibly legitimating them. What follows then is a look at the politics of Thailand in the early 2000s, and the unspeakability at its heart, via the King’s favorite dog.

Part 1: The Things – Tongdaeng Paraphernalia

The market mediated Tongdaeng’s entry into public consciousness. Deployed as a symbol of the Monarch and his values, the royal canine was objectified in various consumer goods (fig 3). Three of these objects – a biography of Tongdaeng, the King’s annual greeting cards, and t-shirts bearing the dog’s likeness – exemplify how Tongdaeng paraphernalia enabled new perspectives on His Majesty to be sold in the marketplace.


fig. 3

The Books

The Story of Tongdaeng was released in 2002. It is one of the King’s “royal writings,” an oeuvre that includes The Story of Tongdaeng, The Story of Mahajanaka, poems, songs, and translations of two books. The Story of Tongdaeng follows Tongdaeng from her lowly birth as a stray dog to her adoption by the King and to her life as a royal canine. In 2004, an illustrated version of the book was published. The Story of Tongdaeng, Cartoon Version has the same text; its images are largely adapted from the photographs in the original. Notably, in the illustrations, His Majesty is depicted as an auratic white silhouette. Printed by Amarin Printing and Publishing Public Company Limited, a company in which both the King and a prominent Princess hold stock, both editions saw multiple reprints and strong demand. The cartoon version, illustrated by a team led by famous newspaper cartoonist Chai Ratchawat, was especially popular. Its most recent reprint was in April 2011, when 10,000 copies were published. At their hey-dey, the books sold widely in bookstores, department stores and perhaps unexpectedly at 7-11 convenience stores. Today, the books are harder to find. The original version is out of print and can be bought second-hand, while acquiring the cartoon version requires a trip to a branch of Golden Place, a chain of shops that sells royally sponsored products.

The text relates Tongdaeng’s intelligence and skills in a collection of curious anecdotes and examples that include her posing for the King’s photographs, picking low-hanging coconuts from miniaturized coconut trees in His Majesty’s palace in Hua Hin, and willingly submitting to an X-ray. Endearing perhaps to other dog lovers, the text repeatedly interprets unremarkable canine behaviors as signs of Tongdaeng’s distinctiveness. Tongdaeng’s enthusiasm for watching fish being fed is glossed as Tongdaeng’s “interest in fisheries.” The fact that, when commanded, Tongdaeng stops scratching becomes, in the text, an example of how quickly she learns. That Tongdaeng likes to lick the King’s hand evidences her loyalty and respect for His Majesty.

The narrative of The Story of Tongdaeng emphasizes Tongdaeng’s many virtues, and can be read as a series of parables about what it takes to be a good subject:


 

Aside from their moralizing message, the images in the The Story of Tongdaeng deserve particular mention; frequently, they seem to say much more than does the text. The illustrations in the comic version, for example, portray a subtext about multiculturalism and the politics of skin color in Thailand (fig.5).


fig. 5
 

Moreover, photographs of His Majesty’s domestic spaces, including his office and other clearly lived-in rooms, bring viewers inside the King’s palace(s) in unprecedented ways (fig.6A, 6B). The collection of mundane objects, the piles of paper, and the clutter captured in the images are disarming (2002, 30-31, 46, 61). These are not pristine or ornate spaces, but are seemingly used, unstaged rooms in the King’s homes. The comic version shows similar, if less detailed, household tableaus. In one illustration, the King is shown Googling on his desktop computer (2011, 48). In another, Tongdaeng blissfully wiggles on a carpet, determinedly scratching her back in what might be best characterized as her owner’s den (2011, 92). The King, in these images, is often wearing informal clothes and even a variety of bathrobes (2002, 43, 61, 78). The accompanying narrative aside, the combination of images in the book – images that, on the one hand, show an obviously affectionate relationship between Tongdaeng and His Majesty and, on the other, reveal the King’s domesticities – are new and intimate perspectives onto the King’s personal life.


fig. 6A
 


fig. 6B
 

The New Year’s Cards

The images of the King and Tongdaeng in the books are certainly novel, but they are not the only innovative images of His Majesty and his dog that have been widely circulated. Since 2006, His Majesty’s New Year’s greeting cards have been staged photographs of the King and Tongdaeng, plus or minus other dogs in the royal household (fig. 6). These images are obviously enhanced or photoshopped. In the 2012 card, His Majesty is flanked by Tongdaeng and her mate Tongtae, both sweetly donning pink housecoats, and also by two impossibly round and shadowless floral arrangements. A border of smiley faces frames the scene, as it has for the previous five cards. The amateurish look of the images is significant. The King reputedly creates the cards himself, a demonstration of his Everyman’s love of and facility with computers.

A look at the history of His Majesty’s greeting cards reveals how remarkably aberrant, both graphically and substantively, the past six years’ cards have been. Somsak Jeamteerasakul (2007) undertakes the most thorough archaeology of the New Year’s cards. According to Somsak, strong evidence indicates that the first New Year’s card was sent to soldiers and border police at the end of 1975. That year’s card, disseminated at a time of political crisis in Thailand, featured an infamous poem called “We Fight.” Based on remarks that His Majesty made earlier that year, the poem was composed by a Mr. Somphap who then offered it to the King. The following year, the King released “We Fight” as a song. It became a rallying cry around which armed rightist forces, including soldiers, border police, and volunteers, were galvanized (Somsak 2007). In October 1976, those same forces were responsible for one of the most violent episodes in modern Thai history: a senselessly brutal attack on protestors, mostly students, in which at least 46 protestors died. Those responsible have never been held accountable.

The next card was sent in 1977, but the greeting cards became a yearly tradition only after 1987. For the most part, the New Year’s messages have become less incendiary over the years. In 1977, the card excerpted a passage from a spy novel that the King translated into Thai. Later years have featured poems or proverbs, only some of which respond to political events. The shift to photographs of the King and Tongdaeng over the past few years could be read as novelty, an expression of changing technology, or part of a broader trend to use family photographs as New Year’s cards. It is also the case that these cards insert a different kind of monarch into the Thai social world than did, certainly, the 1975 card. The image of this King, showcasing his pups, is light, benign and seemingly apolitical.


fig. 7
 

Shirts

In February 2002 after a brief hospitalization, His Majesty checked out of hospital wearing a shirt bearing the image of Tongdaeng and her puppies. A few days later, the Bureau of the Royal Household reproduced 400 ‘Tongdaeng and her family’ shirts and sold them at the hospital for 300 Thai baht each (at 2002 exchange rates, $6.80). That batch of shirts sparked a trend. An earlier batch, the first Tongdaeng shirts, had been on sale at Golden Place since December 2001, but had not attracted much interest. In February of 2002, however, many branches of Golden Place reported being inundated with requests for more shirts (Matichon, February 8, 2002).

For the following year and 10 months until December 2003, hundreds of thousands of shirts were produced and sold, mostly in Bangkok. Undoubtedly thousands more than this were illegally manufactured and sold. Colors varied, as did styles, from the less formal t-shirt to the polo shirt, a style favored by office workers and the middle to upper classes. Different batches of the shirts featured Tongdaeng and her puppies, others Tongdaeng alone and others still had a small image of Tongdaeng embroidered on the pocket. The shirts did not come cheap: prices varied from 250 to 500 baht per unit ($5.60 – $11.40/unit). Proceeds went to an animal shelter in Hua Hin, a seaside town where the King then spent much of his time, to a fund for stray cats and dogs, and to assist Kasetsart University Veterinary School in buying new equipment (The Nation, February 11, 2003).

Newspapers and television news widely reported the roll-outs of new batches of shirts. Coverage often read as promotion with newspapers detailing the stitching techniques and thread count of the shirts, and where and when they could be purchased. An article entitled, “Campaign to Make the Tongdaeng Shirt Wearable in Every Occasion,” argued in great length for the sartorial versatility of the polo version of the shirt (Matichon, November 1, 2002). Another refrain was the insatiable zeal for Tongdaeng fashion. The shirts were a ‘trend’, the demand for them created by a ‘fever’ (e.g. The Nation, February 15, 2003). One article said, “the shirts are harder to find than gold” (e.g. Khom Chat Leuk, December 16, 2002). Thousands waited in line for shirts to start going on sale (e.g. Matichon, December 21 2003). Demand outstripped supply (e.g. Daily News, June 29, 2002; Daily News, December 21 2003). Media also tried to explain the popularity of the shirts. Consumers liked the fact that the images on the shirts were His Majesty’s own photographs and felt that buying or wearing a shirt was demonstrating loyalty to the King (Matichon, June 29, 2002). The shirts were described as popular gift items, especially from parents to children (e.g. Matichon, December 21, 2003). Also, many bought the shirts as collectors items, objects that reflected His Majesty’s own artistry (Matichon, June 29 2002).


fig. 8
 

As much as the Tongdaeng shirts were presented as an accessible consumer pleasure available to all Thais, their distribution and pricing revealed a different picture. Shoppers in the provinces complained that the shirts were hard to come by. Published numbers bear their claims out (qtd. in Matichon, October 16 2002). In one round of sales in November of 2002, 300,000 shirts were manufactured, half of which were earmarked for sale in Emporium, which was at the time the most exclusive mall in Bangkok. In comparison, 84,000 units were to be sent for sale in malls in the provinces. Khom Chat Leuk newspaper investigated consumer complaints from the provinces and discovered that the distribution deals offered by the Thai Chamber of Commerce, who had partnered with the Palace to sell the shirts, required up-front cash for purchase orders. This was a demand that smaller retailers and non-brand name department stores, despite their expressed interest in carrying the shirts, could not afford (December 16, 2002). Affordability was also a barrier for consumers. Matichon, a major daily newspaper, reported that shoppers were “begging” for the price of the Tshirts to be reduced (December 16, 2002). When first sold in 2001 and the beginning of 2002 at the Golden Place stores, the shirts had been priced at 250 baht. Once the Thai Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the sales potential of the product, partnered with the Palace to produce and distribute the shirts, prices went up to 500 baht/unit (Daily Manager, October 31, 2002). The King reportedly requested that the cost per unit of the next batch of shirts be reduced, so prices fluctuated for the next year and a half between 250 baht and 400 baht (The Nation, February 11 2003).

Considering that, even at its most reasonable, the cost of one shirt exceeded Bangkok’s minimum daily wage, the shirts in fact were inaccessible to a large portion of Thais. This in part accounts for the sale of counterfeits on the streets (Daily News, February 19, 2002). It also exemplifies a common sleight of representation that evokes the category ‘Thai people,’ but only to describe a particular type of Thai person – in this case a middle class Bangkok consumer. It might indeed be the case that “Thai people are faithful to the King and want to wear the shirts to pay respect to His Majesty,” as the President of the label under which the shirts are made states (Khun Phonphinit Phonpraphaa qtd. in Matichon, November 1, 2002). But, it is a fact that many and perhaps a majority of Thais could not access the shirt. Their inability to do so suggests that, despite the media hoopla and the brand president’s optimism, the Tongdaeng shirts could never have created a Thai public around a common expression of love for His Majesty.

Part 2: Connections – Remaking Thailand

Tongdaeng plays a central role in attempts to present the monarch in a new light. However, the monarchy and questions around its place in Thai society are but one (albeit central) constellation of issues that animated Thai public life in the 2000s. Principal among these other issues was Thailand’s recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis and its evolving friction with capitalism. A great deal of bureaucratic, journalistic and public attention around Tongdaeng was wrapped up in the dog as a commercial entity. Major players in the burgeoning pet goods industry in Thailand, for example, used the royal dog to promote new standards of pet ownership, norms that reframed pet care as a consumer activity. Keeping up with the latest business practices of the day, His Majesty trademarked a brand named after Tongdaeng. In a version of a buy-local campaign, the Thai Chamber of Commerce vigorously publicized this brand. Ministry of Commerce bureaucrats and other free trade advocates were also quick to use the Tongdaeng brand as an opportunity to educate Thai consumers about copyright law. These are all matters that might seem to take us away from foundational questions of royal legitimacy, but nonetheless locate Tongdaeng and by extension the royal institution as economic phenomena within the prevailing trends of global capitalism. They also reflect the creative ways in which representations of the Monarch continue to stitch together myriad agendas that form (and reform) Thai society and economy, sometimes anew.

Connection 1: Tongdaeng and The New Pet Consciousness in Thailand

The publication of The Story of Tongdaeng was timely in that it both expressed and modeled the changing place of dogs in the home. It also made available its protagonist to legitimize and advertise these changes. While the recognition of dogs as worthwhile objects of charity has long been common (feeding a stray, for example, accrues merit), this view co-exists with pervasive understandings of canines as dangerous, dirty and base. However, new attitudes have emerged to redefine the normative bonds between humans and dogs in Thailand. Concurrent with rapid growth in the domestic pet goods industry and with an influx of imagery of purebreds, increasing numbers of Thais desire to keep dogs as pets and to practice pet care as a consumer pleasure.

As the popularity of the books and shirts became evident, Tongdaeng was swept up in efforts to sell pet goods and the associated lifestyle of modern pet ownership. In December 2003, she performed at the 3rd annual Thailand Grand Pet Show. The yearly event, held since 2000, is hosted by a bevy of departments in the Thai bureaucracy and by Charoen Phokphand Group (CP), Thailand’s biggest business conglomerate; their partnership indexes the fact that CP is virtually a state actor in the country. The departments involved include the Department of the Fisheries, the Department of Livestock Development, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, and the Biodiversity Based Economy Development Office. Various CP subsidiaries, including many prominent CP pet care brands, sponsored the event. In subsequent years, Tongdaeng’s children or grandchildren have performed at the show. Their appearances inevitably garner headlines and their audiences are said to be thrilled to watch the dogs perform tricks like jumping through hoops, following commands, putting their paws together in respectful greeting (wai), and the like.

Secondary in fact to the royal dog performances, the stated goal of the yearly show is to teach Thais how to raise animals according to “international and scientific standards” (President of the Organizing Committee qtd. in Thai Rath, October 27, 2005). Children and adolescents, the pet-owners of the future, are repeatedly identified as the target audience. Organizers of the show characterize pet ownership as working towards a variety of social ends: to build the institution of the family, which has been eroded by Western technology and modern ways of living but whose bonds can be rebuilt through shared love of companion animals; to increase children’s patience; to offer children alternatives to the temptations of drugs; and to help families lessen stress (qtd. in Thai Post, December 8, 2004).

This framing of the relationship between animals and people as potentially remaking or strengthening institutions within Thai society in the face of economic and other changes is an example of a classically conservative, and duplicitous, position on the part of Thai bureaucratic and business elite. For their vision of pet ownership promotes the consumption of goods and services also on display at the show. At the same time that organizers advise wariness towards so-called modern lifestyles, they advocate and benefit from the expansion of consumer choices, an expansion that is at the very heart of the modernity that they appear to oppose.

Thailand’s Grand Pet Show is but one expression of the growing popularity and commercialization of companion animals in the country. Between 2000 and 2007, a period that is roughly concurrent with Tongdaeng ‘fever,’ the rate of dog ownership in Thailand increased by 52% (Batson, 2008). The same period saw the expansion of the pet care industry by rates of 20-30% per year. Despite these growth rates, the Thai pet care industry in 2006 was valued at only 2.5 billion baht (66 million USD), indicating to investors that the sector would see sustained growth in years to come (http://www.champ.co.th/client/pet2006/petmarket.htm).

As much as the flurry of economic activity around pet products reflects an increase in the export-oriented production of prepared pet foods, it equally signals the creation of new domestic consumer habits and desires around pet ownership. The leading edge of the latter concerns food. The conventional practice, which for the most part continues to be predominant, is for people to give rice and leftovers to their dogs and cats. International pet food brands, like Pedigree and Eukanuba, made successful inroads into this context by selling the notion that, once ‘educated,’ Thai consumers would awake to the benefits of feeding their animals commercially available prepared foods. CP, under the name Perfect Companion Co., Ltd., also entered the pet food industry in a significant way, using perky advertising with purebred pups to import to their products an aura of glossy, modern pet stewardship.

This is the milieu in which Tongdaeng’s popularity really begins to make sense. Pet ownership and the consumption of pet products are on the rise. Images of the King’s dogs in his domestic spaces speak to the normality of having animals in one’s home. At the same time, for pet industry players like those at the Grand Pet Show, Tongdaeng and all the royal cache that she might bring to the table became a means for bureaucratic and business actors to soften and expand their own policy, industrial and commercial goals.

Connection 2: Tongdaeng, Branded

Branding is another such connection, linking the palace, Tongdaeng, the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and prevailing mainstream marketing and economic trends. The Tongdaeng shirts that sold so well in Bangkok from 2001 – 2003 were made under the Suwannachat label, a royally conferred brand that the King named after none other than his favorite dog. (Tongdaeng and Suwannachat both mean copper). Suwannachat is trademarked and a picture of Tongdaeng is its logo. His Majesty’s declared intentions for Suwannachat are lofty: to build a national brand of which Thais would feel proud and to raise the profile and quality of Thai manufacturing. In this respect, the Tongdaeng shirt was an ideal platform to publicize the brand. As the demand for Tongdaeng products became apparent in early 2002, the palace partnered with the Thai Chamber of Commerce to produce the shirts. At the same time, in a series of celebrity filled public events, the Chamber unveiled a ‘Pride in Thai’ campaign. Chamber statements indicated that His Majesty had suggested the campaign, also with the aim of improving the state of Thai manufacturing (Siam Rath, November 7, 2002).

These objectives indicate one response to the battering that Thailand received during the Asian Financial Crisis. Pride in country, development, better manufacturing practices, but also self-sufficiency, one of the King’s particular favorites, were all emphasized. Made for Thais by Thais constituted a plausible discourse because the painful post-crisis International Monetary Fund bailout and the country’s economic situation were seen broadly to result from and in Thailand’s excessive dependence on foreign markets and their capital investors. In this view, consumption could be harnessed for the national good: consumers of Thai brands could contribute their own labor – choosing, purchasing, and wearing – to create more value in the economy.

Yet, Suwannachat™ is more than an attempt to build a Thai brand with the King’s dog as its logo. It is as much a national brand as it is a royal one, a brand that could represent the monarch in the marketplace. The move to use a brand as a technology of representation was in the 2000s very current. As the Thailand planning director of the ad company Leo Burnett comments in 2003, “Branding, brand building, brand identity [are] the buzzwords of the past four to five years in Thailand” (Vadhanapanich, 2003). Of course, branding is a global marketing phenomenon, one that, as many have pointed out, expresses a momentum in late capitalism to create more and more surplus value by capturing profit from the labor of brand conscious consumers. Thaksin, who owned an advertising agency in the early 1990s, was very aware of this potential. Thaksin and Thai Love Thai, the political party that brought him into the premiership “were sold from the start by strong branding, a simple and singleminded message, an integrated approach to communication and constant repetition” (Phongphaichit and Baker 2004, 277). Suwannachat was an attempt to do the same for the King, to bring the monarchy into play with the other brands of the day.

Connection 3: Tongdaeng, Copyrighted

In addition to the brand trademark, other intellectual property claims were also at stake. As soon as the Tongdaeng shirts became popular in early 2002, there were numerous accounts, quite predictably, of vendors selling counterfeits. An unusually sensational plot involving a gang of counterfeiters using the bank account of one of their sons, a 15 year old, to funnel their profits from the sales of fake Tongdaeng shirts was uncovered (Thai Post, February 21, 2002). Matichon reported that a police complaint also had been filed against a shop owner who was alleged to have reproduced and sold images of Tongdaeng and her puppies, and of Tongtae, her mate (February 16, 2002). Even before these stories came out, however, a representative of the Ministry of Commerce revealed that the Ministry had conferred with the Bureau of the Royal Household about how best to protect the King’s intellectual property in the matter of the Tongdaeng shirts (Bangkok Business, February 13, 2002). For the photographs on the shirts, as well as the shirts in themselves were copyright protected. According to the Ministry, the photographs, which the King was said to have taken himself, were defined as His Majesty’s “craftsmanship” and the shirts were a type of applied art. As such, the copyright to both the images and the shirts belonged to the King.

At the very beginning of the Tongdaeng trend, the Ministry of Commerce vigorously attempted to co-opt the enthusiasm for the royal dog as an opportunity to educate the Thai public about copyright law. At first, the Ministry took a hard line, asserting that they were prepared to take counterfeiters to court. Officials emphasized potential penalties: steep fines of 100,000-800,000 baht (2,2672-18,182 USD) to prison time of 6 months to 4 years (Bangkok Business, February 13, 2002). The Ministry quickly stepped back from this punitive rhetoric, instead advising police to issue warnings to first time offenders so as to educate wrongdoers that their actions were violations of copyright law (Matichon, February 16, 2002). Soon after, the Department of Intellectual Property (DIP), under the purview of the Ministry of Commerce, moderated their position further, issuing a statement to the public encouraging people to ask DIP before using images or copying the shirts (Daily News, February 19, 2002). Permission would be granted as long as applicants’ proposed use of the copyrighted materials did not contradict the object’s “purpose,” an ambiguous qualification, particularly in light of the numerous purposes to which the Tongdaeng paraphernalia were in fact being directed. Then, in a final twist, it was announced that permission should be sought not from DIP, but from the Office of the Private Secretary of the King. DIP was simply to give advice about the process. To match their diminished role, DIP further softened their stance, invoking a discourse of impropriety, instead of criminality, to mark anyone who would try to benefit from the King’s craftsmanship (Matichon, February 26, 2002). Months later, one DIP representative put forward an even more conciliatory argument: most people who copy His Majesty’s work are doing so out of loyalty, expressive of nothing more than a desire to disseminate more widely the King’s work. Despite their understandable intentions, these loyal subjects needed to know, according to the representative, that they were also copyright infringers (qtd. in Daily News, December 9 2002).

In the name of protecting His Majesty’s craftsmanship, DIP officials were able to use the Tongdaeng shirts to talk up intellectual property, an exercise as much in educating Thais about copyright as it was a signal that Thailand meant business when it came to reigning in flourishing copyright piracy in the country. In the early 2000s, the stakes of these gestures towards enforcement were high. Just as Tongdaeng’s popularity was taking off, Thailand and the US were about to sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, a document that laid the groundwork for future Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations. As a Congressional Research Service report argued in 2003, a significant barrier to this FTA, and indeed a stain on Thailand’s reputation in the World Trade Organization and other regional and international trade bodies, was the country’s inability to enforce intellectual property rights (Morrison 2003, 13). In this context, the close scrutiny paid to the copyright of the Tongdaeng shirts speaks to the aspirations and vision of the Ministry of Commerce, as well as other free trade liberalizers, to bring Thailand in line with international intellectual property regimes.

However, the attention given to the copyright protections of Tongdaeng paraphernalia also reveals an incompatibility between the institutional perspectives of the Monarchy and that of the Ministry of Commerce. For His Majesty, the more people who wore the shirt, authorized or counterfeit, the more that an image of the loyal masses would circulate in a public sphere then dominated by the newly anointed Thaksin. For the Ministry of Commerce, however, the point was to curtail counterfeits. The Tongdaeng shirts presented intellectual property rights advocates with an ideal object — made by the King, a sign of love for the King, a Thai brand — with which to raise awareness of the value of producing and buying originals. Yet, what may be good for the Monarchy may not be good for the Ministry, and vice versa. This tension, between the Ministry’s interest in promoting intellectual property rights and the public relations boon that could come to the Monarchy from large numbers of Thais consuming and wearing the shirts, underscores how Tongdaeng, despite being pegged as a sign of the King, was indeterminate enough to be swept up in a bureaucratic agenda ironically at odds with the royal institution’s best interests.

Spoken for, and as yet unspoken

The Story of Tongdaeng recounts the life of a Cinderella-esque, rags-to-riches, stray-to-high-society mutt, her virtues, her talents, and the tender relationship she shares with His Majesty. The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng shares motifs with the major political and economic narratives of the early 2000s in Thailand: economic recovery, the power of Thaksin Shinawatra, the legitimacy of the King, conflict between populism and the “benevolent” elite, big business in Thailand, growing middle class consumption, capitalist expansion, fair trade agreements, brands, counterfeiting, and copyright norms. Tongdaeng is disseminated in avatars precious – a 400,000 baht sculpture made by the King’s granddaughter – and quotidian – hundreds of thousands of shirts, books, dvds, stamps and New Year’s cards. Through their use and exchange, objects like these connect people across the echelons of Thai society, incorporating them in the issues and agendas that comprise Thai political culture. Politics did not create these networks of objects, actors and ideas, but was made through them.


fig. 9: The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng
 

One question still remains. Tongdaeng paraphernalia was mobilized through a wide spectrum of political projects, but was Tongdaeng ever taken up in dissent or as an object of critique? Certainly, speculative talk, including rumors of a palace intrigue that resulted in Tongdaeng’s death, does indeed circulate. Since talk about the King is censored, speculation of this sort has the illicit aspect of dissent because it flirts with the limits of publically acceptable speech. Likewise, consternated private conversations and jokes may question or poke fun at the hoopla around the dog. A recent piece in “Not the Nation”, a website that satirizes The Nation, an English language daily in Thailand, featured a rare public Tongdaeng joke [1]. The bit spoofed man-on-the-street reactions to a true story about the export dog-meat market. One interviewee was a woman whose coiffure and title indexed her high status; she recommended that the best way to stop the trade would be to put Tongdaeng on the case. The joke plays on the hagiography of Tongdaeng, on the unfailingly glowing and heroic terms in which she is described. However, instances of satire about anything royal-related, even as tame as this one, are rare in public discourse. More pointed critique of Tongdaeng or of the way that she was objectified, often ridiculously, to advance a host of conservative and elite programs in the country appears to be minimal. Despite being spoken for by an excess of words and actors, there persists around Tongdaeng a critical silence. Did Thais think Tongdaeng fever was overstated, her capacities hyperbolically represented, her story propagandistic, or her commercialization simpleminded? Was Tongdaeng, as such a sign of the times, ever mobilized from a dissenting perspective or towards a critical horizon? It is very hard to say, which ultimately reflects the unspeakability at the core of The Story of The Story of Tongdaeng.

Footnote
[1] We would like to thank Tyrell Haberkorn for alerting us to this joke.

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